Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the UN Women Sport for Generation Equality event


[As delivered]

The 25-year anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action by Member States is a day worth remembering and celebrating. We are marking the fact that 25 years ago, 189 Member States came together – forced, I have to add, by civil society and by women’s organizations – to accept that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. And with that a programme was adopted that puts in place key actions and standards for countries to work towards in order to make sure that the rights of women and girls in different countries are actually being realized.

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So, what we are marking here is the journey that we have traveled. Some countries have done better than others. Collectively as women and girls we have moved the needle, but it has not gone far enough. It is slow, it is unequal and there is no single country in the world that has achieved gender equality. We have learnt in the last 25 years that we need to do this work everywhere and anywhere we are: in sports, in the private sector, in government, everywhere. We need to make sure we keep pushing the needle because discrimination is present everywhere.

Let me highlight some of the things that were exciting 25 years ago that we now take for granted, and where we are totally outraged if the needle is not going the right way. We are outraged for the right reasons, and we must continue to be outraged and continue to push forward and to make a difference in the way Irina Gladkikh [International Olympic Committee, Associate Director, Winter & Recreational Sports International Federations Relations] was explaining today in the area of sports.

Women back then called for defining the ‘girl child’, not just the child. Because when we spoke about the rights of children, it had to include the fact that girls were forced to marry early because they are girls; something that doesn’t happen to boys. It had to include the fact that girls experience genital mutilation; something that did not happen to boys. It had to include the fact that, in many countries, girls were not going to school and being retained there in the same way that parents aspired to for boys. That started a whole profiling of the needs of the girl child and their health, etc. In sports, we began to understand that we lose girls as champs during puberty, because of all the ways that society levies girls and their looks, and how then girls become self-conscious and end up dropping sports. So the sporting bodies, the good people in sports, united together to push the girls, and to protect them to make sure that these stereotypes do not affect girls negatively.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action remains for women what the UN Charter is to the United Nations. It gives us the instruments to continuously call the Member States back, to sit together around the table, to move in the right direction and to hold them accountable to.

Some countries are doing better than others. Overall, there is movement forward but not enough; it’s too slow. We need to sprint. We have been in a marathon; we need to sprint now.

As a follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action, we have Generation Equality, which is bringing together women of all ages, from all walks of life, and women in all their diversity, to make sure that the younger generation, -- the post-Beijing generation – feel included without re-opening the Beijing Declaration for renegotiation with Member States. That would have been dangerous, because right now, if you put this issue on the agenda, the risk is that some of the gains that we made 25 years ago could be taken away. So we added to the Beijing Declaration. That is what Generation Equality is all about, with girls at the centre, addressing some of the new issues that have arisen in the last 25 years which were not as visible then, like innovation and technology, and the issue of climate change. And, of course, we want to celebrate the progress we have made in sports and make sure that we have sports accompanying us.

So, for girls like Mbali Dlamini (Gurls Talk Made to Play fund winner) this is the time for them to own the space. And this is the time for us to make sure that we are co-creating the future with them. In my work, this is one of the things that I feel happiest about. You know, in our work for women, we have a lot of things that really disturb us – but working with young women and girls truly fulfills me because of the innovation that is there, the commitment that is there and the assurance that the agenda is going to be in good hands once you and I are no longer able to be so active. But we intend to stay around much longer, and to have these girls stand on our shoulders and see much further than we can see.

So, we do want girls like Mbali to be in the space of leadership, to be in the space where they can play a significant role. And we have seen that when girls work together as peers they influence each other in a positive way. We have seen it through our work with the International Olympic Committee in Brazil and Argentina, in the ‘One Win Leads to Another ‘ programme, where we work with girls to encourage them to embrace sports and teach them about how to prevent and to survive violence, how to tell when they are in a danger zone, teach them self-confidence and how to stay healthy. It is phenomenal what these girls have turned out to be.

There are many Mbalis, not just in Brazil, not just in Argentina, but all over the world. We have Greta (Thunberg) leading the girls in climate activism. We have Ayakha (Melithafa) in South Africa doing the same, shaking the country on issues of climate. And we have many girls who are also fighting to end child marriage in Kenya where girls are at the forefront of stopping their parents from marrying off their cousins.

So, I think that the future is great, and sports is really a good way of showcasing the strength that women and girls have. Because they do things that some men cannot do, which humbles the men, and they also do things that men can do, which then shows everyone what the girls are made of. So, we are really thankful for the women in sports and for what they do, both on the field as well as in leadership.